Wolves’ playoff push starts with a win streak

MINNEAPOLIS – Utah has done it. So have Phoenix and Memphis, and don’t forget about Dallas.

Those teams are some of the Timberwolves’ closest competitors for a Western Conference playoff spot, and they’ve all achieved something down the stretch this season that the Timberwolves have not: a sustained winning streak. That’s what separates them, and it’s what ultimately might doom Minnesota’s fading postseason hopes as the season comes to a close.

Utah is coming off a six-game streak between March 15 and 23, and Memphis won five in a row between Feb. 21 and March 7. Phoenix had a four-game streak between March 14 and 18, and it’s gone 11-4 in March. Dallas also is coming off four straight wins between March 13 and 19, yet another team that managed to pad its record with the momentum of a hot streak.

The Timberwolves haven’t had a winning streak longer than three games this season, and they haven’t won consecutive games since March 7. With just 16 games remaining, Minnesota is just 2.5 games out of the eighth playoff spot, and despite its recent 2-5 road trip, players believe without question that they’re still in the hunt. They also know exactly what they need to do to stay there, to push the status quo and begin to worry more about what playoff spot they might get, rather than if they’re going to get one.

“If you look at the teams ahead of us, they’ve all… gone on a run where they’ve won three, four games,” Wayne Ellington said. “We haven’t done that yet. We need to try to do that, pull together three, four, five in a row and get it rolling.”

Kevin Love said that right now, the team is chipping away, each win a blow to the cushion that teams like Houston, Utah and Denver have created between themselves and Minnesota. But most of those teams have gotten to where they are through a sustained winning streak, and Minnesota can no longer afford those interspersed losses that erase each win.

They’re still close enough to think about the playoffs, to discuss a winning streak and strive for it. But not for long. Time is running out.

“You see all these teams ahead of us,” Timberwolves’ coach Rick Adelman said. “Teams get a nice margin when they go out and win three or four in a row. That’s what we have to do.”

The fact that Minnesota is still in the hunt after going 3-7 in its past 10 games says a lot about the state of the Western Conference standings. Realistically, there are six teams – Memphis, Utah, Houston, Denver, Phoenix and Minnesota – fighting for the last three playoff spots in the conference, and though that provides a wide opportunity for the Timberwolves, it also affords them a measure of complacency that they would be wise to avoid. An urgency might not appear yet in the standings, but with only a month of the regular season remaining, it should be there.

“For us to make a push, we’ve got to really – we’ve got 16 games left, and we have to try to win a majority of them,” Luke Ridnour said. “We’ve got to try to make it happen right now.”

Ridnour, who’s one of the few Timberwolves to have played in the postseason, said he hopes his younger teammates get the chance to experience a run and see what it’s all about. And after watching close games against competitive teams like Utah and Oklahoma City slip away from him and his team, Ridnour can tell that they’re on the cusp. But even those close games weren’t lost due to chance, and the Timberwolves need to figure out what went wrong at the end and how to tip the scales in their favor in close games down the stretch.

And though the schedule may have been the Timberwolves’ worst enemy in the past two weeks, that will all change as the season comes to a close. In Minnesota’s final 16 games, it will face Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Memphis again, but its repertoire of opponents is far more manageable than it’s been in recent weeks. And with eight of those games at home, hostile crowds will be less of a concern.

Two weeks ago, the playoffs were a vague notion. There was no unified stance about how to get there or what it would take, and though the team was in a better position to make the postseason then, the team on Sunday has one distinct advantage: it knows that a winning streak might be the only way to get there. The goal may now be more difficult, but the path there is better defined.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.